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Wednesday, May 14, 2008 | San Diego Unified is considering a new plan aimed at reducing the district’s backlog of overdue repairs, an issue that has dogged the school district as it prepares to ask voters to finance more than $1.51 billion in bonds to replace and upgrade schools.

Its plan divides repairs into different categories, predicts repair needs over the next decade, and recommends minimum funding for upkeep. That plan has won praise from the San Diego County Taxpayers Association, a group critical of past delayed repairs, whose endorsement bond supporters are likely to seek. Supporters say the plan could solidify support among the taxpayer group and other groups concerned by unaddressed repairs.

Yet the brighter picture is clouded by a basic question, now a bone of contention: Just how big is the problem? Within a year, San Diego Unified has given two radically different estimates of the repairs left on its plate, hinging on different definitions of the repair problem. That change prompts skepticism from the Taxpayers Association, which questions how the number could drop so dramatically within a year.

The debate originates in an agreement made a decade ago, when San Diego Unified pledged to spend enough of its own money to prevent buildings from deteriorating in the future.

The commitment reassured taxpayer and business groups wary of endorsing Proposition MM, a $1.51 billion facilities bond geared toward building new schools for the then-expanding district, because the school district had left existing buildings unfixed. In return, the groups gave their blessing to use bond dollars to mop up the backlog of repairs, called “deferred maintenance.”

But when budgets sunk and construction costs shot upward, the school district cut back its spending on maintenance. The Taxpayers Association has criticized the district’s failure to vanquish the repair backlog, and suggested that the shortcoming could jeopardize its endorsement of a new bond slated for the November ballot. School district officials have countered that they did their best when faced with unexpected costs.

And now San Diego Unified has a plan to prevent a backlog from building up again. The committee charged with overseeing Proposition MM is proposing a 10-year plan that sorts and prioritizes repairs and recommends minimum funding for maintenance. It divides projects that should be paid with bond money — those that last 20 years or longer, such as replacing a roof — from short-term repairs that should be paid from everyday school funds, such as repainting doors or fixing broken light switches. The system also tracks facilities by age to anticipate in advance what repairs will need to be done.

“It’s a strategy so they don’t fall into this backlog in the future,” said Dorothy Leonard, chairwoman of the Independent Citizens Oversight Committee.

Under the new plan, San Diego Unified would spend $190 million in district funds over the next decade to make minor repairs and replace items that last 20 years or less. Assuming that the new bond succeeds with voters, the school district would pour $358 million in bond money into replacing longer-lasting components. And it would use an additional $143 million of bond money for system upgrades such as energy-efficient windows.

“It’s a higher and more defined expectation than before” for funding repairs, said Katherine Nakamura, president of the San Diego Unified school board. “A greater percentage of our budget would go towards maintaining our facilities.”

Yet Nakamura said the funding levels could still be overridden by the board in times of economic necessity — an action the board has taken in years past. Repairs are vulnerable to such budget-shuffling because they lack vocal supporters to lobby on their behalf. Parents pour into meetings to defend beloved programs or people from budget cuts; leaky roofs and crumbling concrete don’t inspire the same passion.

San Diego Unified’s board has yet to approve the plan. If adopted, that plan would show that the school district is committed to eliminating overdue repairs, said Larry Remer, a political consultant hired by the outside group Education and Children First to help advocate for the bond. Remer believes the plan could cement a coalition of business and taxpayer groups to support the new bond.

But the lack of clarity over what exactly “deferred maintenance” is could threaten that alliance. Last year, San Diego Unified estimated its deferred maintenance backlog at $670 million. Since then, the school district has given a dramatically lower estimate of $104 million, saying the larger number included other planned construction and repairs that weren’t truly “deferred maintenance.” Taxpayers Association President Lani Lutar remains skeptical of the revised estimate.

“It just doesn’t seem reasonable,” Lutar said. “How were they able to go from $600 million to under $200 million?”

School district staff could not be reached before press time to discuss the deferred maintenance number or the larger plan for repairs. Remer was confident in the lower number.

“I don’t think the school district is deliberately trying to hide the ball,” Remer said. “They’re doing their best to come to grips with it. [Lutar] has a basis to be skeptical, but she has no basis to disagree.”

The lower number corresponds to a five-year plan San Diego Unified has filed with the Office of Public School Construction listing its repair needs. The state furnishes matching funds for specific repairs up to a half-percent of the schools’ general fund, said Fred Yeager, assistant director of the school facility planning division of the California Department of Education. San Diego Unified estimates it will receive $5 million in matching funds next school year. Under state law, funds will only be provided for projects that San Diego Unified includes in its plan.

Such five-year plans are “a wish list,” said Carol Shellenberger, operations manager for the OPSC, “but it’s not necessarily everything that they could repair.”

The confusion over the repair cost isn’t unique. Nor is confusion limited to that contested number. The repair plan is unclear to Scott Barnett, a former Taxpayers Association president now consulting the bond campaign. That plan needs to be translated for the general public to help legitimize the school district’s push to conquer repairs, and bolster support for its next bond.

“Only a couple of bureaucrats could write something as convoluted as that,” Barnett said. “My goal is to put it into a format that the average person can understand.”

Please contact Emily Alpert directly at emily.alpert@voiceofsandiego.org with your thoughts, ideas, personal stories or tips. Or set the tone of the debate with a letter to the editor.

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